ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hal Linden's Secret Identity and Jennifer Simard Gets Sassy at the Drama League Awards

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19 May 2014

Seth with Hal Linden
Seth with Hal Linden

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky


This week I'm off to Raleigh/Durham North Carolina on Wednesday to do Deconstructing Broadway as well as a master class. Then on Sunday, I'm doing another master class... or should I say Mastre Classe. Oui, I'll be in Montreal!

We're going to take a 12 hour Amtrak up to Montreal which is really scenic and great for getting writing done. However, before I focus on the future, let me obsess on the past (my mother's specialty). Last week, I had Hal Linden on my SiriusXM talk show, "Seth Speaks." Turns out, he began as a musician. He played reeds (especially clarinet) and performed in the Army big band during the Korean War. Once in a while, he'd sing a song in one of the army concerts with his instrument around his neck. At one of the shows, they asked him to play a role. He had never really acted before, but the moment he got his first laugh, he wanted more. He had always planned on joining a big band when he got out of the army, but the end of the war happened to coincide with the end of the big band era so he used his GI bill money to go to acting school. He was working in summer stock and one of the girls he was seeing who was the chorus of Bells Are Ringing told him there was an opening in the show. It was a small chorus role that would also understudy Sydney Chaplin (the leading man). Since Hal had no New York experience, he had to audition starting with the stage manager, then the casting associate, then to the creative staff and finally opposite Judy Holliday!

He got the part and began rehearsals on a Monday. They decided to teach him the Sydney Chaplin role first (instead of his chorus part) and it was a lucky thing because there was suddenly an outbreak of the Asian Flu (!) and Hal was on for the leading man that Saturday afternoon. Five days after he began rehearsal! He hadn't even finished blocking the show but he had a very good sense of it — he had seen it a lot since he was dating one of the girls in the show. When he got to the scenes he had never staged people in the cast simply pushed him where he needed to be. That happens all the time when someone goes on in a show with a lack of rehearsal. My friend Jennifer Simard taught me the show biz term which is "shove with love." As helpful as everyone was, it wasn't always able to override the fact that he hadn't rehearsed with any of the actors in the show; during one of the dances someone whispered, "Go across the stage to Louise" and he responded with, "Who's Louise?"

Linden as "Barney Miller"

He did so well, however, that they never taught him the chorus role he was supposed to do and instead made him the official stand by. Then, he wound up taking over the role! It was extremely rare in those days for an understudy (with no credits) to take over the leading role in a musical, and he did it in his very first Broadway musical! He went from show to show in the 60's, continuing to take understudy roles because he had four kids and needed to make money. He got an offer to replace Larry Blyden as the snake in The Apple Tree but he was still asked to also be an understudy, this time for the leading man, Alan Alda. Hal agreed to do it... if he got the same billing as Larry Blyden. He was very proud that an understudy got billing above the title. As a matter of fact, I watched the YouTube video for the 1971 Tony Awards when he won Best Actor in a Musical for The Rothschilds and he ended his speech by saying, "I would like to say a word to my friends in the balcony, for all of you who spent those awful Saturday mornings in understudy rehearsals, this is for you. Keep the faith!" You can watch the whole show here, and it's one of the absolute best ones ever because it's the year that they have someone from the last 20 Tony winning musicals sing a song from their show. So thrilling!

Hal, of course, is now more famous for television than he is for Broadway, and that happened in a very arbitrary and wonderful way. In the early '70's, Danny Arnold was doing a film in Manhattan and brought his family with him. Every day he'd film and send his family on New York excursions (Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building etc). One day his family rebelled and told him that they were sick of going off by themselves and wanted to be with him. It turned out to be a day where he didn't have to be on the set so he joined them on their afternoon activity which happened to be a matinee of The Rothschilds. A few years went by and he went on to create "Barney Miller." The network executives sent him a list of actors who had high so-called TVQ, but he told them that he already had an actor in mind... someone he had seen at a matinee performance a few years back. Hal told us that Danny hadn't come backstage after he saw the show or sent a letter or contacted him in any way. Simply out of the blue, two years later, Hal was offered the title role in a new television show that lasted for eight seasons! So, to all of you actors out there, no marking! You never know who's in the crowd that might change your career one day.


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